Interview: Frank Pavich, 'Jodorowsky’s Dune'

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Director Frank Pavich, by Debbie Cerda, for use upon request with attributionOne of the most critically panned science-fiction films in history is Dune, directed by David Lynch in 1981. The rights to the film version of Frank Herbert's novel changed hands several times before Lynch's adaptation, with potential producers including Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes) and Dino De Laurentiis.

In 1975, arthouse cult filmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky secured the rights the Frank Herbert's Dune and began working on what would have been the most epic science fiction film ever created. Jodorowsky assembled creative geniuses and cultural icons from all over the world for the cast and music, creating his personal group of "spiritual warriors" for a two-year massive undertaking. Unfortunately, Jodorowsky's planned film and his story never truly made it beyond the storyboards until now.

At Fantastic Fest 2013, I met and spoke with director Frank Pavich, who brings to light the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his failed attempt to tell the mythical tale in his documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. Jodorowsky's treatment has been called "the greatest movie never made" for its influence on the science-fiction film genre. Here's what Pavich had to say during our time together.

What was the inspiration for you to tell this story of Jodorowsky and his film adaptation of Herbert's Dune?

It's just such a great story. You put together Jodorowsky, the guy that made El Topo and Holy Mountain and the artists that he brought in such as Jean "Moebius" Gerard, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss -- and then you start adding in the cast. You have David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles -- and then you add Pink Floyd on top of it, Magma, and it is like, "This is the greatest movie never made!"

I want to learn more about it, I want to see more about it, I want to see inside that book. I want to see that vision come to life, and that was really it. It was, "How do we do that? How do we share this great story with as many people as possible?"

What was the hook for you? Have you always had a passion for science fiction or are you a fan of Frank Herbert?

I really come from the Jodo [nickname for Jodorowsky] side of things, I was more familiar with his work than anything else. I think he is a very touching individual, a very specific vision that speaks to me which drew this piece to me, that's what originally turned me on to it all.

You can come from the Dune door, you can come from the general science-fiction door, you come from the Jodorowsky door. There's so many, the Orson Welles way, the Salvador Dali way, off the band Pink Floyd -- but for me it is all really about Jodo.

What were some of the challenges in making this documentary?

Every film is a challenge, you're trying to tell the story in the best way you can. A lot of languages in this film, it's a documentary in four different languages. How do you get to the root of the story? How do you get to the driving force behind it? How do you get to that interesting through line? It all to us comes from Jodorowsky. We kind of just let him be our voice and let him tell the story. It's his point of view, it's his tale, so what's the best way to allow him that space to do that?

Really, the challenge is just like with anything. How do you keep it going? How do you prevent minds from wandering in the theater? How do you stop people from feeling the need to pull out their phone and see if they have any texts, or updates to their Twitter account or whatever? You want to keep them engaged. How do you keep people on the edge of their seats wanting to know what happened next? That's the challenge with any film, I suppose.Alejandro Jodorowsky -- Photo by David John Cavallo

You reached out to Jodorowsky, how did that go?

It was great, he was very receptive to the idea. I went to Paris to meet him at his home. Our first meeting was pretty short, maybe 10, 15 minutes. He never asked "Who are you? What have you done before? Let me see your previous work." And to this day, he's never asked that.

He is a good reader of personalities and a reader of intentions. I think he believed I had good intentions, that I was going to be honest. Obviously I was extremely enthusiastic because I was probably jumping out of my chair speaking with him. I think that he read my enthusiasm and my obvious passion for it, and my respect for both him and his story.

I think he knew I would tell the story in an honest way. He gave us a gift -- this story is so meaningful and personal to him -- and he let me be the one to tell it. Every day I wake up, to this day, I am just so grateful. His goal in making Dune as he says in the film was to make a prophetic film, to make the film a prophet.

To change the minds as he says, to change the young minds of all the world. I mean, he did change the minds, he changed the lives of all the people that worked on the film. He changed my life for sure by allowing me to make this film, and I am not speaking about, "Oh, now the movie is done and I'm getting to travel the world you know, and meet great people and show them this film," but just the process of making the film is what transformed me.

As he says, he's interested in alchemical transformations, and I feel I am a representation of that. I feel I am a different person today than I was walking into his apartment that day and meeting him for the first time.

You made a reference to him being able to read people and that definitely seemed to be a recurring element in your documentary that you captured about him, in regards to how he handled every meeting in "search of the spiritual warriors."

And that's why he is ultimately okay with his Dune never being realized as a film, because it did change. Look at the lives of his spiritual warriors -- their lives are completely different for the better, completely changed from meeting with him. The film world is a very different place because of those people all coming together. Obviously in the film we talk about Alien, you know and the careers of all these people, but we don't go into some of the deeper specifics.

There would be no Blade Runner as we know it without Jodorowsky's Dune. There would be the Philip K. Dick story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" of course, but the film would not be the same because Dan O'Bannon and Moebius met on Dune and afterwards they together wrote a comic called "The Long Tomorrow." If you look at "The Long Tomorrow," it is exactly the production design of Blade Runner. That world is the Blade Runner world and Ridley Scott has admitted that.

Obviously he [Scott] knew Dan O'Bannon, obviously he knew Moebius because he brought them on to Alien, and what would the world be like without Alien? What would the world be like without Blade Runner? Those are two seminal -- not just science-fiction films -- but films, period. What would the world be like without those ideas, without that imagery? Very different.

Can you talk about the musical score?

Our story takes place at a very specific point in time, the mid-Seventies, which has its own aesthetic, but you don't want it to scream that. Jodorowsky's movies -- my favorite films of his are El Topo and Holy Mountain -- are of the early Seventies, but not of the early Seventies because they were of their own world. They don't take place in New York City in 1973, they take place in the Jodo universe, everything is created for the film which is one of the reasons they can really stand up.

So while he was making Dune in the Seventies, it would not have been a Seventies film necessarily. We wanted to keep to what was going on then. Our composer is a guy whose name is Kurt Stenzel, and he had a very light touch, it's a synthesized soundtrack that seems to fit, but it's not like a heavy-handed thing like, "This is the Seventies science-fiction, this is Logan's Run." It's not anything cheesy like that, I think it really fits well, and our film is pretty much wall-to-wall music.

It really is like a character almost, it's really leading you through the all these scenes. Sometimes it's obvious, and I think sometimes it's more subliminal almost with its drone-like and different synthesized sounds. That aesthetic carried over to the way we represented the artwork of the film, in the way we brought the storyboards to life with animation.Courtesy of H.R. Giger/Sony Pictures Classics

So are we actually seeing the storyboards or is it an animator's interpretation?

Syd Garon was our animator and he is just fantastic. He has that same light touch that Kurt had to the music. How do you take these storyboards which are pencil on paper? They're quickly-drawn sketches with a lot of emotion with everything represented in there -- some of them are very rough and just outlines and shapes. How do you breathe just the right amount of life into them without making it overblown, without putting our vision into there? How do we bring Jodo's vision to life, kind of puffing up those images, breathing a bit of air into them, and then letting the viewer's imagination continue that? How do you show a pencil animation but when you're seeing it your imagination is taking you to a place where you are seeing the fully realized version? I think that is the challenge with it all and I hope we accomplished that.

We would plan it out -- what do we want to show, what's unnecessary, when do we go full frame and when do we show the actual storyboard panel? It's just trying not to overdo it. Just because the technology is there doesn't mean you have to utilize it. It doesn't mean we had to make everything into some kind of crazy 3D thing. That's not Jodorowsky, that's not his vision. You want to be respectful of what he created when you're showing his artwork.

According to your film, Jodorowsky's Dune was not be just be entertainment for entertainment's sake, but it's about expanding the consciousness and awareness of the future or these alternate sort of realities.

Jodorowsky sees everything as a spiritual endeavor, not necessarily with a specific religion in mind, but with a spiritual mindset -- "Let's make the world a better place, let's create things that will better the world." That is always what his viewpoint is whether he's making a movie, writing a book or doing a comic or working with Tarot cards or working with the psycho-magic therapy that he's developed. He's always trying to help -- he wants to leave a better mark on the world.

[Photo credit: "Director Frank Pavich" by Debbie Cerda, for use upon request with attribution.]